Top 5 Qualitative Market Research Techniques

Market research

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Qualitative market research is a powerful tool to plumb the depths of new territory and discover truths that are normally hidden from easy view. What does a given product category really mean to buyers? How can you make small changes in your packaging and marketing that drive large results?

Not only can qualitative techniques reveal the unspoken meanings which products hold to customers, the results often stimulate the generation of fresh new ideas. Most importantly, qualitative market research is a fantastic way to screen ideas and concepts before you begin to invest even larger sums into them. It can both save you from making serious mistakes as well as tell you what you should be doing instead.    

Besides the traditional methods of qualitative research like focus groups, in-depth interviews, and ethnography, modern market researchers also deploy two new techniques you should know about: online communities and eye tracking. Together, the three older methods and two high-tech ones provide a window onto your market that generates a steady stream of answers you can use. Let's consider them in more detail.

Online Communities    

People increasingly spend large parts of their lives on social media, and online communities allow you to take advantage of this to understand your market better. Consumers are invited to private versions of social networks, where they can discuss and critique products and ideas from the comfort of their homes. Since everything happens in a familiar context, they tend to open up and provide more spontaneous, natural answers than in a sterile 'laboratory' type environment.

Online communities can also mix in other market research techniques to get a better picture, and they can be used both for short-term tests and tracking attitudes in the long term. For example, participants might be asked to post photos of their fridge, participate in Facebook-like discussions, or even work with other participants to create their idea of a "perfect product". 

Eye Tracking    

Market researchers know well that what people say they like is often quite different from what they actually like. Eye tracking research allows the savvy researcher to find out from people's reactions which things are drawing their attention, without the filter of what people believe they 'should' be paying attention to.    

Eye tracking can happen both in an in-store and on-screen context. For example, letting consumers walk around a real store or a packaging lab's realistic shelf set up with lightweight eye-tracking glasses quickly reveals which signage or packaging designs are producing results. Alternately, if many different designs need to be evaluated, market researchers might create a 3D digital mock-up and show the designs to consumers on-screen.    

Ethnography or 'Observation Research'    

Market research need not involve asking consumers questions. Many studies begin without recruiting any formal research subjects at all -- the researcher simply spends some time in different stores that stock the product (generally at least 10-15 stores) observing the behaviour of consumers as they interact with the product on the shelf. In other cases, researchers might spend time in homes and workplaces observing consumer behaviour as they use the product.

Photo ethnography is a widely used variant of this kind of research. With this, consumers record their behaviour in a kind of digital diary, taking photos or making videos of their purchases and how they use them.

In-Depth Interviews    

In-depth interviews (sometimes called 'depth interviews) happen either one on one (so called 'dyads') or with one moderator interviewing two consumers (so called 'triads').    

These interviews, as the name suggests, tend to be long and in-depth; often as much as 90 or 120 minutes. They can reveal everything from consumer attitudes toward the product category and brand to how they react to a new type of pack and what their suggestions might be. Using modern technology these interviews can also take place over the phone or via video chat.    

Focus Groups    

The classic tool of market research, focus groups of 6 to 12 people and a professional moderator are still a staple choice. The group interaction often stimulates unplanned reactions, revealing insights participants wouldn't think of individually. To reduce costs or reach a broader participant base, they may use a 'Hollywood Squares' format with many people on one video chat, connected over the Internet.    

Despite their ubiquity however, focus groups do have some downsides. Notably, participants don't get much time to speak individually, and 'group think' type effects may reduce the usefulness of the insights produced. If the moderator is not careful, some participants may end up hiding and not speaking much at all. (focus group report example)

Image source: Pixabay


Alex Chester

Alex Chester

I'm an economist currently working on a few projects in Australia. I'm interested in topics related to market research, project management and business improvement.


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Phil Khor

Phil Khor , Founder at SavvySME

Great article Alex! I guess it pays to use a combination of techniques but I often find 'observation research' you referred to as most useful. I suspect our human brain knows more subsconciously about what we like or don't, than words can ever describe. So I reckon it's more accurate to observe what people do, rather than what they say.

Jef Lippiatt

Jef Lippiatt , Owner at Startup Chucktown

I agree that focus groups have limitations, especially since it is questioning out of context. You may be asked if you'd buy something that costs hundreds of dollars (which without having to hand over at that time skews the context). Many of these areas overlap with User Experience Design, however, the focus or outcomes are used differently. One method I use is Contextual Inquiries which is very similar to in-depth interviews. The point is to see the user in their natural environment interacting with the product as they would if you weren't there with them. Another great method that is similar is the Master-Apprentice relationship. Let the user or customer know that they are the master and you are there to observe and learn from them. This sets up the stage to grow a bond of mutual trust.